Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict Peace Deal Showcased the African Union’s Peace Diplomacy, but Several Sticking Points Remain
On November 2, 2022, representatives from Ethiopia's federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a cessation of hostilities agreement, ending an almost two-year war that had devastated the country. The agreement, which was brokered in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, was the result of several days of mediation talks led by the African Union (AU) and facilitated by a team comprised of the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa: former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, and former Deputy President of South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
The parties in question agreed to key points, including:
- the cessation of all forms of hostilities, including an end to the use of belligerent rhetoric and hate speech:
- disarmament of TPLF combatants and subsequent steps towards the implementation of a comprehensive Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program;
- restoration of essential services in the Tigray region;
- ensuring unfettered access for humanitarian aid in the Tigray region; and
- upholding a commitment to protect civilians, especially women and children.
To ensure the effective implementation of the agreement, a monitoring, verification, and compliance mechanism will be established and comprised of the Ethiopian parties, a representative from the AU high-level panel, and a representative from the regional body — the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
Providing a brief background, the conflict between the TPLF and the Ethiopian federal government began in November 2020 when Tigrayan forces launched an attack against a federal army base in the region, killing over a dozen soldiers and wounding several others. The federal government responded by launching a counteroffensive against the TPLF, deploying thousands of Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) to fight the Tigrayan forces in what was framed as a critical military operation to maintain law and order and uphold the constitutional order of the country.
Shifting battlefield dynamics notwithstanding, both sides appeared determined to attain military victory, despite mounting casualties and a worsening humanitarian situation that resulted in the displacement of over 2 million people and an estimated 383,000 to 600,000 fatalities between November 2020 and August 2022. The conflict also left more than 5 million people facing starvation mostly due to a federal blockade that prevented delivery of humanitarian supplies into Tigray, in addition to cutting off essential services such as electricity, telecommunication, and banking services.
On March 24, 2022, the conflict parties reached a humanitarian truce to allow for the delivery of aid to the Tigrayan population, who were in dire need of food and medicine. The ceasefire, which lasted between March and August 2022, allowed for a trickle of humanitarian aid to enter Tigray, although the supplies fell far below what was sufficient on the ground. Although the hope was for the humanitarian truce to lay the groundwork for a more lasting ceasefire in the following months, the hardline stances of both Tigray's leaders and the federal forces meant that both parties had little appetite to pursue a negotiated settlement. Federal authorities maintained that the counteroffensive was necessary to avert the country's fragmentation and cement its legitimacy and authority countrywide. For its part, Tigrayan leadership remained committed to achieving several of war-time objectives, including regaining territory in Western Tigray that had been lost to Amharan forces in the earlier phases of the war, ensuring the restoration of essential services and delivery of aid to Tigray, and clearing all elements deemed to be security threats.
Despite the diminished prospects for a peace agreement, shifting dynamics also prompted a rethink by both parties regarding the costs of prolonging the fighting. For the federal government, deteriorating economic conditions, characterized by rising inflation, mounting external debt servicing costs, and the suspension of budgetary support and assistance programs worth over $200 million by the United States, the European Union (EU), and other international partners made a strong case to sue for peace. In a similar vein, the Tigrayan leadership was forced to reconsider its position mainly due to a series of battlefield setbacks due to the federal forces' use of drones to hit strategic targets deep within their territory.
Adding to the incentives to stop the fighting, the gradual momentum towards peace talks was supported by a series of steps by external actors, including Obasanjo's appointment as the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa during August 2021, in addition to growing calls for an end to the war by various international rights groups. The shuttle diplomacy carried out by the U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, and the EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa Annette Webber played a complementary role in laying the groundwork for the mediation process that could culminate in the peace talks that were held in Pretoria in late October 2022. The cessation of hostilities agreement signed last November was followed by an implementation deal signed in Nairobi, Kenya on November 12, which laid out the modalities central to the key tenets of the agreement. The Nairobi deal addressed issues such as the disarmament of TPLF combatants and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara special forces. Moreover, the deal outlined the parties' commitment to ensuring unhindered humanitarian access and cooperating with the AU monitoring and verification team.
Despite positive developments in the aftermath of the peace agreement signing, many thorny issues arose as potential obstacles in ensuring a lasting peace. Chief among these is contestation over Amhara-occupied territory in western Tigray, which is claimed by both Amharan and Tigrayan authorities. A second issue is the presence of Eritrean forces who fought alongside the federal government and whether or not the deal would have sufficient political backing necessary to ensure their withdrawal in subsequent moments. In this regard, local reports as of December 30 indicated that some of the Eritrean forces had begun withdrawing from the cities of Shire and Adwa. Lastly, there remains an elevated risk that enduring ethnic tensions between the Oromo and Amhara (Ethiopia's largest communities) could aggravate ethno-nationalist sentiments in other parts of the country, which will not only jeopardize efforts aimed at nation-building but could also undermine aspects of the deal based on mutual trust and recognition.
Overall, the realization of the cessation of hostilities agreement represents a commendable achievement on the part of the AU's peacemaking credentials, despite substantial odds. While international stakeholders played a key supportive role, the UN mostly delegated conflict resolution to the AU as the lead regional actor with a mandate to pursue a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
However, the two-year war — labeled as one of the world's deadliest conflicts in recent decades — underscored a number of insights regarding the limited engagement by the international community. With the world's attention mostly focused on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Tigray conflict and a number of other crisis situations across the world were largely overshadowed. Furthermore, at the height of the conflict, the United Nations Security Council proved unable to act mostly due to divisions among its members; China and Russia blocked the adoption of any resolution in line with their view of the conflict as an Ethiopian internal affair. Furthermore, the use of drones by the federal coalition — procured from China, Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates — attuned us to the realities of modern warfare, in addition to highlighting the discernible trend of internationalization of conflict in which both internal and structural drivers interact with geopolitical and regional interests in complex ways. Finally, the durability of the ceasefire and its prospects to ensure lasting peace remain contingent not only on the affected parties' visible efforts but also on deeper and often onerous tasks encapsulated by peacebuilding processes and initiatives in support of a more sustainable compact of peace.
Faith Mabera is a Senior Researcher for the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with the University of South Africa (UNISA). IGD is a member of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.
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